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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Lawrence Public Schools food service workers rallied Thursday outside Lawrence High School, frustrated with low wages and staffing.

Employees said the district is dangerously short-staffed when it comes to paraeducators, food service workers and classified positions.

“We deserve a living wage, you know. I mean, we have families,” Tanna Innis said. “Yeah, mine are all grown up, but my husband passed away. I’m on my own, honey. It’s tough.”

Innis, a food service worker, has been with Lawrence Public Schools for about 5 years. She said right now there should be 20-22 workers in the kitchen. Instead, there are only six.

“When we look at our numbers, it doesn’t exactly match up with what the district is saying,” said Hannah Allison-Natale, a Lawrence Public Schools paraeducator and president of the Personnel Association of Lawrence-Communication Workers of America. “But our numbers, it seems like we’re about 150 staff down from before COVID.”

According to the union, the starting wage for food service workers is just under $10.91 and goes up to $11.80, and food service managers start at $12.27 and can earn up to $13.27.

“We have several hundreds of our workers, our paraeducators, our food service workers, our custodians, our secretaries, our library and media assistants that are making below $13.50 an hour,” Allison-Natale said.

Lawrence High freshman Alex Johnson was out supporting his mother, a food service worker, on Thursday. He said the lunch staff is his family and sees they’re burnt out over the working conditions.

“I’m here to support them because they’re very understaffed and their wages are just not where they need to be,” Johnson said.

A Lawrence district spokesperson declined to speak to FOX4 about Thursday’s rally but said via email the school board and administration are committed to improving salaries.

The spokesperson said the Lawrence school board approved $6.4 million in cuts to staffing and programming last spring. That reallocated $1.9 million to improve staff salaries.

But Allison-Natale said it’s not enough. The local union presidents said there are workers who are practically homeless or struggle just to provide for their own families.

“You could go almost anywhere else in town and find better wage than what the school district is paying,” she said.

The district said it’s working on ways to provide more for its staff. For instance, Lawrence Public Schools has used pandemic funds for retention payments to certified and classified staff. Plus it provides free preschool for classified staff.

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